Tag Archives: penguin random house

South and West: From a Notebook by Joan Didion

Title: South and West: From a Notebook
Author: Joan Didion
Publisher: Knopf
ISBN: 978-1524732790
Genre: Non-Fiction
Pages: 160
Source: Personal Copy
Rating: 4/5

Joan Didion’s works are not easy to read. But once you read her books, there is no stopping. I remember reading “The Year of Magical Thinking” when it was first published in 2005 and wrenched completely to the gut by its honesty. Since then, I haven’t missed reading a single book by her. My copy of her latest, “South and West: From a Notebook” came all the way from Shakespeare & Co. in Paris, a gift from my sister. Anyhow, now back to the book.

Her essays are introspective unlike her fictional works. Don’t get me wrong here, I adore her writing, just that I feel her non-fiction is stronger than fiction. This thin volume contains two pieces: the first, a collection of assembled jottings in her notebook from a road-trip through the South in 1970; the second piece is about the Patty Hearst trial.

The first piece forms the bulk of the book – with details on everything South as they traverse that landscape – from its swimming pools in motels, to meeting regular people, knowing their views on class and racism (nothing has changed since then or so it seems) to the sedentary life lead there. At the same time, her keen eye for detail and candidness, makes you wish there was more to this book and more so to this piece.

Didion makes the South alive for you – every nuance, twitch of the faces of the people she observes and interacts with to the weather (more so important for the South) is pat down to the last nitpicking detail and as a reader you are only too happy for it. At the same time, you also feel that it could very well have been a travelogue (or is it?) with rich descriptions of the landscape and the minor details that are paid attention to.

What struck me about the book the most is that though written in the 70s, it still is so relevant today given the views of the people in the South – where discrimination – racial and classist are taken as the norm and no one seems to object – it was almost as though this were a warning for the times to come with the current President of the United States of America.

The second piece in the book is too brief – it finishes even before you have started reading it which is quite a pity. It is just a collection of notes and sketches (which of course what the entire book is) and nothing else adds to it. In fact, I had to go to Google to know more about the Patty Hearst trial.

All said and done, “South and West: From a Notebook” is a book which perhaps isn’t meant for all – or I don’t even know if it will be enjoyed by all. I wouldn’t recommend it to a beginner to Joan’s works but for someone who is familiar with her writing, you will love it, just as I did, so please pick it up.

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Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi

Title: Homegoing
Author: Yaa Gyasi
Publisher: Knopf
ISBN: 978-1101947135
Genre: Literary Fiction
Pages: 320
Source: Publisher
Rating: 5 Stars

There are books you read that make you want to be a better person, they make your heart sing and leave you breathless because of their sheer beauty. There are books that break your heart, they keep stabbing at it with a curved blunt knife and you are in pain and you know that, but the magic of words doesn’t make you stop turning the pages. There are also books that do all of this – books that have the power to do it all, so to say and “Homegoing” by Yaa Gyasi (I still cannot believe that this is a debut novel) is one such book.

I love and enjoy books about families on a grand scale – something about them that makes you relate to what is going on and not so much – perhaps which is what makes it so desirable and not so. “Homegoing” by Yaa Gyasi is about two sisters who never meet during the book. One grows up in a sort of prosperous family where she is promised in marriage to a powerful man and the other grows up in a tribe where she is captured and caught into slavery. This action takes place in Ghana – more exacting would be in the coastal region. The book is about the sisters of course but also about their children and grand-children and great grandchildren and it is marvelous to see Gyasi loop through all these characters and give them a logical start, beginning and end every single time with every single chapter.

At given point I didn’t think the writing was overwhelming because of the several sub-plots. In fact, if anything, I found Gyasi’s writing to be quite simple, empathetic and most easy to read. The trials and tribulations of these sisters and their progeny makes you think of what goes on in this world as we live safe, protected lives. The narrative switches back and forth between each generation of the sister’s family lines and to me that was a lovely way to link stories of families and to know of the songs and tales passed down from one generation to the next.

Yaa Gyasi projects the conflict of the Asantes and Fantes – the tribes of Ghana and the readers will be pulled into their lives, customs and how one of them even work with the British to sell them slaves. Honestly, it didn’t even surprise me given what some people go through in India at the hands of their so-called “community people”. I felt a little cheated in the last couple of chapters and wished there was more to the characters and their lives – but I guess those can be overlooked.

“Homegoing” by Yaa Gyasi is a novel that will take your breath away. It is meshed intricately with people across generations, timelines, emotions, men and women who are stuck with decisions they make and the ones that are forced on them. Most of all, the book is about what it takes to be human above everything else and what it really takes to make it through all the pain and hardship.

Incarnations: India in 50 Lives by Sunil Khilnani

Incarnations by Sunil Khilnani Title: Incarnations: India in 50 Lives
Author: Sunil Khilnani
Publisher: Allen Lane, Penguin Random House
ISBN: 978-0241208229
Genre: Non-Fiction, History
Pages: 636
Source: Publisher
Rating: 4 Stars

Sunil Khilnani’s “The Idea of India” is one of my long-standing favourite books on Indian history (well of whatever is there in it) and civilization. Till “Incarnations: India in 50 lives” came along. Not that it is any better by any stretch of imagination than “The Idea of India” but I quite like the concept. So what is the book about? Just what it says – India in 50 people – their lives and their journeys as the country progressed or declined – a mirror of our times so to speak. The concept is terrific and so is the writing, at the same time, there are some places where the book falls short.

Mr. Khilnani however picks some very obscure people for the book – which again I think is okay, given the timeline he covers and what he wants to communicate, however, there is something which is amiss in the book – the time spent on each personality. I wish there was more written on each of them which is not the case, only because Khilnani’s writing is par excellence.

Now coming to the personalities from Aamchi Mumbai or the state of Maharashtra as well. There are only 8 of them – nonetheless – I thought there could have been more from our city; however we will make do with these eight.

The eight personalities are: Shivaji (quite an obvious one, isn’t it? – the warrior king and about how he changed the course of the state of Maharashtra), Jamsetji Tata (another obvi choice), Annie Besant (her role in Mumbai wasn’t all that much, but still noteworthy, given the educational institutions set up by her and the time she spent in the city so much so that people mistook her to be Indian and from Mumbai), Manto (one cannot forget the time he spent in India and most particularly in Mumbai working with Bollywood – given he was also a screenplay writer), Raj Kapoor (need anyone say more when it comes to him – the first true blue showman so to say, and yet Khilnani has such an unbiased perspective which I personally loved and enjoyed), Ambedkar (the man who no one will ever forget and his role in starting the Dalit movement – this is my favourite piece in the entire book – only because there is so many layers which have been uncovered where the man is concerned and that too only in about five to six pages), M.F. Husain (one of India’s most prolific painters) and finally Dhirubhai Ambani (I shouldn’t have to say anything at all about him, should I?).

So these are the personalities – the purpose of the book is to trace their lives and see its relevance in not only shaping India as a free country but also their ideologies communicated through their work and made a lasting impression on people’s minds.

“Incarnations” as a book to me is complete in the sense of an idea or a concept but again there had to be more personalities – a 100 of them would perhaps been ideal. Mumbai was a terrain has also perhaps not been explored that much because of the restriction to 50. The book reads slowly (of course) and it will take some of your time before you are done with it. What I also found quite magnificent was the way in which the illustrations are handled – some are prints of paintings, some posters and some in the form of maps, which gives the book its very layer dimension. “Incarnations” is a very relevant book for our times and the world we live in. It is time to go back and trace our civilization and history through people who lived then and the difference they made.

The Ladybird Book of Dating by Jason Hazeley and Joel Morris

The Ladybird Book of Dating Title: The Ladybird Book of Dating
Authors: Jason Hazeley and Joel Morris
Publisher: Michael Joseph
ISBN: 978-0718183578
Genre: Humour
Pages: 56
Source: Personal Copy
Rating: 5 Stars

We all must remember Ladybird books while growing up isn’t it? We read them as kids, didn’t we? Our first foray into reading. Well at least for me they were and I remember loving them till of course a certain age and outgrowing them just as easy.

So then the very same Ladybird books have come out (of course they are an imprint of Penguin Random House) with a series for grown-ups and the first one I happened to read in the series was “The Ladybird book of Dating”.

Dating 1

The tone of the writing is in line with what you’d expect from a Ladybird book – as if these grown-up concepts were dumbed down for children but the humour is super – it is British, it is wry, and above all you can relate to it. It is irreverent, in your face and in sync with what we think or feel but never say out loud. Also, might I add, I thought at first that they would be dumbed down, but that did not seem the case once I started reading this book and more that followed in the series.

Dating 2

The book is a great short insight into the dating game and what people expect and what they end up getting. I did laugh out loud so many times while reading this book, that I went ahead and ordered the rest available in India in this series (a book of hangover, the wife, the husband, mindfulness and the hipster).

Dating 3

These books will make for great gifts for friends and family. At the same time, if you have had a bad day or having a bad day, it takes about less than half an hour to finish reading them, so keep them by your side – a good laugh is always welcome.

American Housewife: Stories by Helen Ellis

American Housewife - Stories by Helen Ellis Title: American Housewife: Stories
Author: Helen Ellis
Publisher: Doubleday
ISBN: 978-0385541039
Genre: Short Stories, Literary Fiction
Pages: 208
Source: Publisher
Rating: 5 Stars

Imagine Desperate Housewives being written into a book – just a little funnier, sarcastic, edgy perhaps and with a dash of American angst, loneliness and the no-good housewife, trying to make something of herself. But the stories in Helen Ellis’s book “American Housewife” is not just about the average housewife, so don’t be fooled by the title. The book is about dreams gone wrong, frustrations dying to get a way out, of thwarted hopes and a lot of pointed commentaries on womanhood and the world around them today.

The stories range from the unique initiation ritual of a book club (the twist is there throughout the story and you can sense it) to the set of a rigged television show to the getaway car of a pageant princess – they are all unique and full of wit and tragedy.

I think for me reading this book felt like I could connect on so many levels – well not of being stuck in a marriage or being betrayed in a relationship, but just that I could relate to the women and the layers of intensity of emotions of every kind that Ellis draws up for this through the dozen stories.

What struck me the most while reading these stories was the tone and pace of each story and how each is different from the other, when it comes to those two parameters. Some stories are definitely sharper than the others, and some just jolt you off your daily existence to make you see how bizarre life can really be.

“American Housewife” is a brilliant, raw and real collection of stories that tells you a lot about women in general, only if you care to listen or in this case read. I would most certainly recommend it to every one out there. Waiting for her next!